2011 David N. Townsend



Changing the World:

Rock 'n' Roll Culture and Ideology


David N. Townsend

Chapter 3

Changing Times

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When Don McClean recorded "American Pie" in 1972 he was remembering his own youth and the early innocence of rock 'n' roll fifteen years before; he may not have considered that he was also contributing the most sincere historical treatise ever fashioned on the vast social transition from the 1950s to the 1960s. For the record, "the day the music died" refers to Buddy Holly's February 1959 death in a plane crash in North Dakota that also took the lives of Richie ("La Bamba") Valens and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"). The rest of "American Pie" describes the major rock stars of the sixties and their publicity-saturated impact on the music scene: the Jester is Bob Dylan, the Sergeants are the Beatles, Satan is Mick Jagger. For 1950s teens who grew up with the phenomenon of primordial rock 'n' roll, the changes of the sixties might have seemed to turn the music into something very different: "We all got up to dance / Oh, but we never got the chance." There's no doubt that, coincident with Holly's death, rock 'n' roll began declining into a hibernation that left the music nearly dead when compared with the vitality of only a few months earlier. And it's not too hard to understand why. Imagine a football team winning the Super Bowl one year, and then losing to injury, free agency, or retirement its starting quarterback, and its best receiver, running back, defensive lineman, and cornerback, as well as its coach and half the front office, all over the course of the next season. Not likely to win another championship, or even a game, for quite some time.

That's not too far from the plague that hit rock 'n' roll in 1959-60. Within little more than a year, Holly--easily the brightest young star of the moment and possibly the wave of the future--was dead, Elvis had been drafted and was stationed in Germany, Chuck Berry was arrested and indicted under the Mann Act for transporting a minor across state lines, Little Richard gave up music to become a preacher, and Jerry Lee Lewis was vilified and ostracized for marrying his underage cousin. Meanwhile the recording industry was hit with a major scandal over payola schemes between record labels and disc jockeys, a controversy that would bring down some of the most innovative independent studios and revered jockeys, including the legendary Alan Freed himself. The Day the Music Died, indeed.

So here we had this void widening, starting about February of 1959, and coincidentally I was born at the same time, and then the calendar changed decades and a man named John Kennedy showed up talking about a New Frontier. On the charts, the top slots were handed over to the likes of Paul ("Put Your Head on My Shoulder") Anka, Connie ("Everybody's Somebody's Fool") Francis, Brenda ("I'm Sorry") Lee, Bobby ("Volare") Rydell, Ricky ("Travelin' Man") Nelson, Pat ("Moody River") Boone, Bobby ("Take Care of My Baby") Vee, and the wonderful Frankie Avalon. If anyone doubted that rock 'n' roll had crashed and burned, these frightening wraiths were convincing proof.

Take Frankie's "Venus". Please. (Not to be confused with "Venus" by the Shocking Blue a decade later, a brilliantly original and stimulating tune which was itself covered by Bananarama in 1987.) This was the Number Three hit for all of 1959, and it has as much in common with Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop" (Number One for all of 1958) as with Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits. Throughout the song a backing chorus of female vocalists croons a high pitched "oooh" that's meant to sound like a Siren (of the Venus, Goddess of Love, kind) but more resembles a siren (of the here-come-the-cops-hide-the-loot kind). The music is understated to a fault, with a little rolling snare drum, daintily picked string bass, and subtle glockenspiel or some such instrument. And then there is Frankie, All American Boy, humbly calling out in the most innocent adolescent voice for Venus to please send him a girlfriend:

Venus make her fair
A lovely girl with sunlight in her hair
And take the brightest stars up in the skies
And place them in her eyes for me
(No Long Tall Sally for this putz.)

Needless to say, all of the above were white and cute and unthreatening, and were shamelessly hyped by the corporate conglomerates that had usurped rock 'n' roll from the struggling independent labels which had to rely on talent rather than promotional budgets to sell records. Matters weren't entirely bleak, of course, for black artists were still generally pursuing a faithful strain of indigenous, unsanitized music that was eventually to evolve into Soul, and some of the best--Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson--managed to crack the pop charts on a fairly regular basis. There were other encouraging trends too: instrumental groups like the Ventures and Duane Eddy and the Rebels showcased guitar and saxophone as lead instruments, laying the groundwork for the later experimentation of the Yardbirds, the Velvet Underground, and Jimi Hendrix with loudness, feedback, and distortion. And a young man named Phil Spector decided that how the records sounded was just as important as the melody and the lyrics, at the same time as he realized that teenage boys (of which he himself was but lately one) liked their girls slinky and sexy--and in groups of three--so he introduced "girl groups" to the pop world, along with a style of record mixing soon to be known as his trademark "Wall of Sound," and established himself before the age of 25 as the forefather of all future behind-the-console geniuses.

It wouldn't be fair to toss Spector's ladies (the Teddy Bears, the Crystals, the Ronettes) and the other early female trios (the Chantels, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, and the great Motown girls groups--the Marvelettes, the Vandellas, culminating with the aptly named Supremes) onto the same pile as the aforementioned teen idols. Spector's work alone placed his records far above the mass produced, interchangeable pop ballads of that cadre, and the distinctive girl group sound established a new sensuality to pop hits that was nowhere apparent in the squeaky clean offerings of Connie and Brenda and Annette. Just assembling three or four sizzling senoritas with buxom figures and beehive hairdos on one stage and having them sing fervent love songs in unison was enough to overload any pubescent boy's unspoken urges. The first such harem was Spector's Teddy Bears, whose lone hit was 1958's "To Know Him is to Love Him". Innocent enough? Well, it certainly doesn't hose down any smoldering teenage fantasies to imagine that three gorgeous chicks could simultaneously and instantaneously fall for a guy just by meeting him: skip the small talk. Now contemplate the group's name for a second. Actually Elvis Presley got the jump on this idea with his 1957 #1 hit, "Let me be Your Teddy Bear". Depending on your point of view, a teddy bear is a sweet, delicate image of childhood devotion (= certified parental acceptability), or something soft and cuddly that you squeeze and caress and bring to bed with you (= intimate sexual fantasy). After the Teddy Bears, some of the girl groups began to unveil their come-ons a little more directly, e.g., the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and "Tonight's the Night" (both 1960), or the Ronettes' "Be My Baby":

I'll make you happy baby
Just wait and see
For every kiss you give me
I'll give you three

The girls also began to insurrect a little against pristine social norms by falling for more unsavory fellows whom their parents would reject (and who would happily kick sand in Frankie Avalon's face): the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" (1962), the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" (1963), and the Shangri-Las' venerable "Leader of the Pack" (1964). (Spector daringly but chauvinistically took this trend a bit too far with the Crystals' 1962 "He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss)," which thankfully never found the airwaves.)

Anyway, that was the landscape circa 1959 to 1963. There were glimmers of innovation under a dung heap of schmaltz and cynical manipulation. But five years is a long time, as long as the original rock 'n' roll outburst had lasted, and the interminable succession of commodity hits and hitmakers during that interval ultimately severed the period of groundbreaking newness that epitomizes the fifties from what is now universally associated with the sixties. In social reckoning, the sixties didn't begin until 1963, even though the fifties ended in February 1959, and perhaps that's good, because it gave the world time to percolate, and rock 'n' roll time to regroup, while the Older Generation let down its guard, thinking "Thank goodness that's over with!"

So what did happen, and how did it happen? If we're going to talk about worlds changing, there's no doubt that the world did change after 1963, and with earthshaking rapidity. Why? What was going on?

Well for one thing a guy named Bob Dylan was going on. I have to wonder what would have happened in this country if Dylan had never made it to New York, if Kennedy hadn't been killed, if the Beatles had never gotten together, if Berry Gordy had gone into some other line of business, if Martin Luther King hadn't been born. In hindsight, it's tempting to think of the intertwining events and personalities of the sixties as "inevitable," to assume that historical forces created the Dylans and the Kings, and if those particular individuals hadn't emerged, others would have filled the same roles. This theory presumes that the world was simply ripe for change, and that the clever few simply anticipated and perceived these trends and deftly rode the wave to the top. I can't believe it's that simple. Listen to what Dylan was singing in 1963:

Come gather around people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin' . . .

He wrote this before Kennedy was assassinated, before the Beatles conquered America, before Vietnam and civil rights and women's liberation were widely popular causes. Dylan himself was only well known in the narrow folk music community; if it hadn't been for Peter, Paul and Mary covering "Blowin' in the Wind," most of America wouldn't have even heard his music by then. Here was this lone voice calling out angrily that Big Changes were on the way, and if you put it in the context of the moment when he was singing, there was no particularly strong reason to expect that he would be right. After all, the big hit records of the year were still being made by acts like Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, the Singing Nun, Paul & Paula, and the 4 Seasons.

Now the question is, does this make Dylan a prophet or just extremely perceptive and farsighted? Perhaps not quite either. I would argue that, in a sense, Dylan was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bob Dylan, by being who he was, through the force of his own will and vision, was to a great extent a cause of the changes that came about in the sixties, just as he predicted them. That was the power of his music. Listening to "The Times They are a-Changin'" now, three decades later, still stirs an emotion of hope and anticipation. At the time, I've got to believe that his young and restless audiences were tremendously moved by the images of a song like this. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 the reports were that he simply blew away the entire audience. Can't you just picture those thousands of listeners, and all the tens of thousands more who bought his first records, finding in themselves a growing conviction that Bob Dylan was conveying a new and important message, a call to action? They would look at each other and say "yeah, 'the Order is rapidly fadin'!" Such attentive early fans became the vanguard of the Youth movements shortly to come. As the message and the inspiration were strengthened through "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Masters of War," ""With God on Our Side," Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone," and so many others, the vision of changing times merged with unfolding events into a documentary of reality, for which Dylan seemed to supply the soundtrack.

This is not to suggest that Dylan or anyone was solely responsible for social upheaval, or that no substantial change would have occurred without him. No individual is going to cause a revolution, musical or otherwise. As Elvis and Chuck Berry were preceded by vital forebears, Dylan was in part anticipated by the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and especially Woodie Guthrie. Nevertheless, despite a hospitable climate and simmering unease among much of the population, by no means was "Bob Dylan"--the concept of Bob Dylan--inevitable. The point is far more evident if we apply it to Martin Luther King, a man who unarguably altered the social and political complexion of the nation by the force of his words and the depth of his convictions. There had been black leaders before him, and the principles of equal rights and empowerment had been advocated and even advanced in the preceding decades. But the arrival of this extraordinary man brought a tidal wave of passion and commitment to purposeful change that was absolutely unprecedented in a community that had suffered unchecked oppression for the entire history of its existence on this continent. Had King not emerged, black consciousness and activism, and political successes, would undoubtedly have come about in some form over time, but it is inconceivable that the pace of the civil rights movement would have been anywhere near as rapid. To believe otherwise is to assert that Dr. King himself was irrelevant, in which case George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and FDR were also irrelevant.

Individual persons can and do (and shall) affect the course of human events, sometimes dramatically and not always for good. Bob Dylan was not a King (McClean called him a Jester) or a President, but neither was he a passive observer or even just another folk singer. What Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie had not accomplished, despite the beauty and insight of their music, was to penetrate near enough to the mainstream of the pop culture, or even to mainstream songwriters, to provoke any interest in political, conscience-raising subject matter. The issues of militarism, segregation, poverty, pollution were certainly all on the table--Kennedy and others had at least acknowledged them in the political forum--but the youthful pop music audience still consisted mainly of apolitical kids whose musical interests tended to reinforce their detachment from larger societal concerns. What Bob Dylan did first and most resoundingly was to inspire people. He told his audience to open their eyes; they did. He pointed out problems, hypocrisy, suffering, and expressed his personal feelings of outrage and compassion in so forceful a manner that listeners came to share those feelings, to find them within themselves. This makes Dylan not a prophet but a leader, an agent for change in a society that did not know it was awaiting his arrival.

That this is true is evidenced not only by the dramatic social transformations soon emanating from college campuses overrun with nascent revolutionaries, but by the overnight ascent of folk and folk rock on the cold, unfeeling scale of the record charts. Dylan himself began to sell records, in particular albums, by the hundreds of thousands: The Times They Are A-Changin', his third album, reached Number 20 in 1964, and his landmark Highway 61 Revisited hit Number Three the next year, after which Dylan albums were instant gold records for more than a decade. In his wake, in addition to Peter, Paul and Mary, who first brought "Blowin' in the Wind" to Number 2 in 1963 and followed with numerous hits of their own, a veritable army of new bands and solo artists earned fame and glory performing "folk" (i.e., acoustic guitar, harmonica, lamenting balladeer singing style), "folk rock" (electrified folk motif), and/or "protest" music (lyrics about Them vs. Us, or Bombs, or A Better World, or almost anything other than My Boy/Girlfriend Left Me). These included, in 1965 alone, Joan Baez, the Lovin' Spoonful, Barry McGuire, Donovan, the Turtles, Sonny and Cher, and above all the Byrds. Soon to follow were even greater heroes: the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, Arlo Guthrie, the Band, and the folk rock Super Group of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (respectively of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies, and Springfield again). By the end of the decade, these had been augmented with a bevy of singer-songwriters--Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Melanie, Carole King (author of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow")--all directly founded on Dylan's archetype. As Charlie Parker was a living legend to his peers in the pioneering of bebop jazz, Bob Dylan remained the unchallenged sovereign of folk/protest rock even among the most (musically and commercially) accomplished of his adherents, not to mention among true believing fans. His title was "The Conscience of a Generation".

There's an important post-script to the Dylan legend from the mid-1980s, by which time Dylan's generation had reached what passed for maturity. In those days (and still today) the label "Yuppies" was often derisively attached to former Hippies (usually by members of the same generation who had gone into journalism), who had supposedly stashed away their idealistic aspirations in favor of a pursuit of materialism little different from that of the parents they had once scorned. Meanwhile, their Conscience had nearly disappeared into irrelevance; Dylan's response to the aimlessness of the late seventies was to find Christianity and lose much of his audience, releasing the "born again" albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), which yielded weak reviews and poorly attended concerts (at which he seldom played his older songs). By 1985 he and his music seemed firmly ensconced in the Oldies closet, when Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, and the organizers of the "We Are The World" recording session coaxed him to join them and contribute a solo stanza.

The brief episode that ensued encapsulates both the magical atmosphere of the extraordinary 1985 period of social consciousness in rock, as well as the uniqueness of Dylan's legend. Apparently Dylan, long out of the spotlight, was so self-conscious that he wouldn't perform with others watching, and all but a handful of technicians and Richie had to leave the studio. Even then, Dylan's singing was tentative and shallow, until Richie demonstrated what he was looking for on the record by imitating the distinctive early Dylan nasal whine, which Dylan then imitated back. Life magazine published a photograph of Richie rolling on the floor in ecstasy as he listened to the resulting tape, made by the real Dylan, back at last. The consequences of this moment were several. Dylan's four lines on "We Are The World" are (along with Cyndi Lauper's) the most stirring of a song that boasts about three dozen megastars; and with that twenty second cameo, Dylan suddenly seemed to regain both his confidence and his audience. Inside of a year, Dylan closed out the Live Aid concert marathon (worshipfully introduced by no less than Jack Nicholson), helped initiate and performed at the subsequent Farm Aid concert, and joined with Tom Petty on an electrifying national tour on which he revived many of his long dormant classics to delirious crowds of old and new fans. Dylan was not only back, he was singing about the right things again, at a time when his voice, his Conscience, were most sorely missed. For thousands of 1960s veterans caught in the trap of 1980s ideological stagnation, a fleeting memory of times when real change seemed possible was rekindled.


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Disclaimer: This is an unpublished manuscript, made available to the public for your personal interest and reaction. It may not be reprinted, copied, or distributed in any manner, without express permission of the author. I neither ask nor receive any financial compensation for this document. Hence, although I use quotes from several published song lyrics without having obtained formal permission of the copyright owner, there is no violation of copyright, since this document is not "published" or sold in any meaningful sense.